Luke Shaw put in a very strange performance against Arsenal during Manchester United’s 3-2 defeat to Arsenal yesterday.
Coming into the game in fantastic form, the England left back essentially allowed his international colleague Bukayo Saka the freedom of the pitch, leading to a worrying number of penalty box entries for the hosts.
Gary Neville told Sky Sports that he “felt for” United’s fullbacks during the defeat, recalling his own experiences of playing against wingers like Robert Pires, with the likes of Ashley Cole overlapping and midfielders making him feel like he “had runners everywhere.”
And while there certainly were times when Martin Odegaard and Ben White did help to overload Shaw – with Scott McTominay providing little to no support – it was alarming how often the United fullback was timid as a mouse when defending one-v-one against Saka.
Shaw’s endless back peddling conceded so much space that Saka registered six shots and four key passes. For reference, the Arsenal winger has averaged 2.1 shots and 2.3 key passes per game this season. The extra space made him more than twice as effective as he usually is.
There was plenty of warning before his long-range effort beat a blind sighted David de Gea, and even after that it seemed no lessons were learned.
It was roughly halfway through the first half when Saka suddenly became a huge threat to United’s backline, and it was noticeably after Mikel Arteta’s yellow card that Shaw seemingly became terrified of putting in a tackle.
Arteta charged out of his technical area towards the first official, screaming “Four!” while holding aloft as many fingers in response to a fairly harmless challenge from Shaw.
While it was a foul, it was actually only his second of the game. Nevertheless, Shaw played on eggshells thereafter, only attempting to tackle again on the 83rd minute. He was booked for an accumulation of fouls.
None of that is to excuse Shaw, who should be doing his job as a fullback regardless of threats of a booking, but it is perhaps one explanation for his unusually passive performance defensively.
Another could well be that he – for some reason – entered the match in ‘centre-back mode,’ having played a handful of games there since returning from the World Cup. As a center back, the priority is often getting your body between the ball carrier and the most direct route to goal, rather than actually challenging opposition wide players as a fullback would.
Watching Shaw yesterday, that explanation could have merit as he almost looked like a central defender pushed wide, however it would certainly undermine his newfound versatility if he was forgetting his role between matches.
The defender took so well to deputising for Lisandro Martinez in the heart of the backline, but if he is going to be an option to do so in the future, he obviously must be in the correct frame of mind for the role he needs to play.
It is difficult to find a specific explanation for just why Luke Shaw played so badly against Arsenal, but given his recent excellence in a United shirt, one feels compelled to try.
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